I’ve attended the Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Festival in Davenport, Iowa five times, starting in 2001. This year’s installment was perhaps the best ever—top-notch bands on the card and some other neat happenings. Due to a scheduling conflict, the festival had to be moved this year to the Waterfront Convention Center and Isle of Capri Casino in neighboring Bettendorf. Although the two music venues seemed satisfactory to me in terms of acoustics, accessibility, and physical layout, the setup was not as convenient as the last Bix I attended, in 2014, which was held at the Adler Center in downtown Davenport.
There, both music halls were barely a one-minute walk apart. This year, they were the equivalent of two or three city blocks apart, which for those attendees who aren’t too fleet-footed, meant at least a five-minute hike that required using two elevators or climbing several flights of steps. I did not ask any of the organizers about all the maneuvering that had to go on to secure this location, but my sense of the audience was that they preferred the Davenport venue.
Whether the Bix returns there or not will depend, understandably, on financial as well as logistical considerations.
One advantage of the Casino is that all the musicians could be housed at the on-site hotel, thus eliminating the need to chauffeur them to and fro. All we know at this point about next year’s event is the dates: August 3-5, 2017.
The festivities kicked off a few days earlier with concerts in and around Davenport. I did not arrive in time for any of those, other than the one-hour performance at the Putnam Museum on Thursday by two jazz luminaries with deep connections to Bix—Dick Hyman and Randy Sandke. Randy played Bix’s 1927 Conn cornet, engraved with his name, which is currently housed at the museum. I believe it, and other Bix memorabilia, will be moved to the new Bix museum which is scheduled to open next May at the River Music Experience in downtown Davenport. Watching these two masters perform was a rare treat for everyone. They played two additional sets during the festival, and Dick had a solo set as well.
I should mention that Randy received this year’s Bix Lives Award on Friday evening. He joins Dick, Dr. Albert Haim (who was also here this year), and seven other important figures in the life of the Bix Society. Randy’s wife and son Bix(by) were on hand as well.
I don’t know what the attendance was at this year’s festival, but judging by the number of empty seats in the two indoor venues (at the times I was in each one), I wondered if the crowd was smaller than at the previous festivals I’ve attended. Perhaps it was a case of setting up more chairs than were expected to be needed because the rooms were big enough to hold them. Not all attendees at this, and many other festivals, stay for the duration. Many local people buy only one or two afternoon or evening passes. It’s also possible that the free music at LeClaire Park siphoned off some of the audience from the Casino.
Now, about the music. All the bands were top-notch. I made sure I heard all the out-of-town bands at least once.
From what I recall from previous festivals, there were fewer bands this year, and the festival was shortened by one day. In prior years, there had been Sunday afternoon sets at LeClaire Park in Davenport. This year the park was used only on Friday and Saturday evenings by local bands. I did not go there this time, since it’s a 10- or 15-minute drive from Bettendorf, which would have meant missing at least one set at the main venue. When the Bix was at the Adler, one could walk to LeClaire Park in about five minutes and not have to worry about driving and finding a parking space. On Sunday, there were the usual jazz liturgy services at the First Presbyterian Church, where the Beiderbecke family had belonged for many years, and the evening jam at the Knoxville Tap in nearby Milan (pronounced MY-lin, not mi-LAN as in Italy). I left early Sunday morning to start for home, so I did not take in either of these.
The Bix emulated the Olympia Jazz Festival in Lacey, Washington, which I reported on in the August issue, in one (to me) very favorable way. There was a pick-up band, led here as it was there, by Jeff Barnhart, featuring musicians from around the country. The group’s moniker at Lacey was Charlotte’s Boys. Here it was the Rock Island Roustabouts, drawing its name from the city across the river from Davenport. What made this group unique was that while each band member had played before with most of his (or her) colleagues, this was the first time that all seven had been on stage together. Jeff, in typical humor, called their sets rehearsals, but they sounded like anything but. Here’s the roster: Jeff on piano and vocals; Katie Cavera on guitar, banjo and vocals; Doug Finke on trombone; Dave Kosmyna on trumpet and cornet; Chloe Feoranzo on clarinet and vocals; Steve Pikal on bass; and Hal Smith on drums. Chloe, at 24, was by far the youngest member of the troupe—less than half the age of several of the others—but she acquitted herself admirably. She very quickly won over the audience with her playing and singing.
At one of their sets, the Roustabouts played Jelly Roll Morton’s “Transatlantic Stomp,” a tune published by Melrose Music. Frank Melrose, the only white piano student Morton ever had, reportedly played the song before Jelly Roll. He was a son of the firm’s owner. Frank’s daughter Ida Melrose was in the audience for this set.
The Lakeshore Syncopators, a melding of (mostly) young Chicago and New York musicians, was my favorite of the festival. In this group were arguably the two finest exemplars of Bix—Andy Schumm on various instruments (including goofus in one of their sets) and trumpeter/cornetist Mike Davis—along with New Orleans pianist David Boeddinghaus, John Otto on reeds, Dave Bock on trombone, Steve Torrico on drums, and a new face to me, John Donatowicz, who has just replaced Jake Sanders on banjo and guitar in the Fat Babies. Mike has developed, in addition to prowess on trombone (which he played at times in Dan Levinson’s Six Shades of Bix), an ingratiating vocal style that got ample airing during the weekend. I would love to see this band recorded.
Dan Levinson is always well received at the Bix, regardless of which band he brings. I’ve been an admirer, and now a good friend, of his since he joined Vince Giordano’s Nighthawks over twenty years ago. This year, in addition to Andy Schumm and Mike Davis, he had Conal Fowkes on piano, Rob Adkins on bass (both of whom were making their first Bix appearance), and Josh Duffee on drums. They played at the annual gravesite ceremony on Saturday morning (about which more shortly). Dan also has a close connection to Bix, having produced an album recalling Bix’s music in his centennial year of 2003. Dick Hyman and Randy Sandke, among others, are on that CD.
A group making a return engagement this year, but one I had not heard of because I did not attend last year, was Miss Jubilee and Her Humdingers from St. Louis. They added a unique flavor, recalling some of the well-known and not-so-known female vocalists of the ’20s through the ’50s.
I’ve attended the gravesite ceremony each time I’ve gone to the festival. This was the first year that we were not overwhelmed by the usual Iowa humidity which, to me, always detracts from the beauty of the event. A number of Beiderbecke family members were on hand. Liz Beiderbecke Hart, Bix’s great-niece, wrote and read a very touching account that conveyed the pain that Bix’s early death brought to the family, especially to his mother, Agatha. I doubt that Liz is old enough to have known Agatha, her great-grandmother, who died in 1952, but certainly she would have heard a lot about her from her father and grandfather (the latter was one of Bix’s brothers). To conclude the ceremony, a local vocalist, Wendy Hammond, accompanied the Six Shades of Bix sang Irving Berlin’s “Waiting at the End of the Road,” a tune I’ve always liked. I am not an emotional person, but the combination of the occasion and Wendy’s poignant rendition nearly had me in tears.
A big shout-out to Josh Duffee, the Bix Society directors, and the volunteers for making this year’s festival one to remember. I need to start attending more often.
Other Davenport Bix Fest Coverage: Celebrating Bix in Davenport, The 46th annual Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Festival, Every Bix Devotee Should make a Pilgrimage, Bix & Satch’s season in the sun, Bix Museum Opening in July, The Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Society
Jazz Travels columnist Bill Hoffman is a retired management consultant and is the concert booker for the Tri-State Jazz Society in greater Philadelphia. He is the author of Going Dutch: A Visitors Guide to the Pennsylvania Dutch Country and Unique and Unusual Places in the Mid-Atlantic Region. Bill lives in Lancaster, PA.